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After two successful tarmac outings this month the Stobart VK M-Sport Ford rally team are back on a loose surface, in the land of the rising sun, as they tackle the fourth running of Rally Japan next week. This is the 14th round of the FIA World Rally Championship and the last of the long-haul events before the WRC circus heads back to Ireland and UK for the final two rounds of 2007.
Jari-Matti Latvala/Miikka Anttila and Matthew Wilson/Michael Orr both have experience of the Asian event after competing here for the first time last year. For Henning Solberg/Cato Menkerud this will be the third event in a row the Norwegian crew are experiencing for the first time in their career.
Last year Rally Japan saw the Stobart team debut their 2006 specification Ford Focus RS WRC, the car being used for the team’s entire 2007 challenge. This year’s event takes on a similar guise to 2006 with the rally base in Obihiro, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, remaining unchanged.
Introduced to the WRC in 2004, Rally Japan is seen as one of the most colourful and exciting events on the calendar. In its first year over 50,000 spectators flocked to the ceremonial start to catch a glimpse of the world’s most powerful rally cars.
The fast, gravel roads of Japan are notoriously tricky when sections of the surface become slippery, especially within narrow forestry areas. The event also sees the return of the Super Special stage after two rallies without one. The 1.35 kilometre Obihiro test is a delight for the massive spectatorship, being run four times, before a final dash on Sunday afternoon completes the 350 kilometres of total competitive distance.
Now back on his preferred loose surface, Solberg has been raring to go after two tarmac events which he had to take very cautiously due to his inexperience on the surface. While it is his first time to Japan, the similarity to New Zealand and GB will help the Norwegian enjoy this rally; along with his healthy appetite for Japan’s famous culinary delight, sushi!
2006 was a fine year for Latvala dually-shown through his performance in Japan. Coming into the final leg the young Finn was heading the Production WRC field by well over a minute and an incredible eleventh overall. Unfortunately retirement three stages from the end dampened the effort, but the experience of stages gained will be a huge bonus heading into the event this year.
Thursday evening’s Ceremonial Start in Obihiro will mark a milestone in the 22-year-old’s short, but packed, rally career. Rally Japan will host Latvala’s 50th world rally championship event start and there’s no doubt he will be looking to celebrate in style.
Wilson’s debut in the 06 Focus RS got off to a cracking start last year with the 20-year-old setting a multitude of times inside the top-ten. Small mechanical issues forced him to retire from the second day but after re-entering on the final leg, he continued to set the pace well inside the top leaderboard. Britain’s only fulltime WRC driver will be looking to recreate last year’s efforts back on a surface which complements the youngster’s style of driving.
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Henning Solberg said:
“For the third time this month I am going to another new event! I have never been to Rally Japan before and my approach will be similar to the other two events. The only good thing is that I am back on my preferred surface of gravel. I have heard some things about the stages and I think they will still be difficult for me; the fast, narrow roads with loose gravel will be tricky and it will be easy to get caught out. My plan will be to get some experience of the stages before I can really start to push. It will be interesting to get back to gravel as I think I will have learnt some things from the last two tarmac events that may also help my driving on gravel.”
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Jari-Matti Latvala said:
“I really like the roads in Japan but they are also very challenging for drivers and it’s easy to feel confident and push too hard. I was leading here last year with the Group N car until we had some mechanical problems on the last day. The roads are fast, but narrow, with a lot of blind corners and because of this I will have the same plan here as with the last tarmac rallies. On the last events I have tried to have a less aggressive driving style and be smoother with the car and this is the most important thing for me again in Japan. I will be looking for a good result but also to progress my driving even further.”
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Driver Matthew Wilson said:
“It will be good to get back on gravel after two tarmac rallies. We will start with last year’s notes and see how they go because both Saturday and Sunday’s stages are identical to last year which will help on the recce. This event is going to be totally different for us because last year it was a bit warmer and dry whereas this year it’s going to be quite cold, and I’m told there is a good chance of snow in the higher points which will make conditions very tricky. It’s a good event and an amazing place and I’ve been looking forward to getting back onto the loose surface.”
Stobart VK M-Sport Ford Rally Team Principal Malcolm Wilson said:
“Hopefully the Stobart team will be able to continue to build on their solid results recently. Japan is an event that has proved to be difficult in recent years for guys competing here for the first time. In the past a lot of our drivers have struggled with pacenotes on their first time to Japan but hopefully it will not be too much of a disadvantage for Henning. All three crews are back on their preferred surface so a good result could certainly be possible for the team. This year, with the change of date, there is the added possibility of tricky, icy roads which can make conditions very difficult.”
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